Friday, June 25, 2010

The Rock -- covert ops and active disobedience

Director: Michael Bay, 1996. (R)

As the movie opens to stirring patriotic music and images of wars, we hear a voice saying, "Congressman Weaver and esteemed members of the Special Armed Services Committee, I come before you to protest a grave injustice... It has to stop." This is Maj. General Hummell (Ed Harris), a blue-eyed marine officer looking dapper in his dress uniform. Later, we hear Hummell's impressive resume: "Three tours in Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm; three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and the Congressional Medal of - Jesus. This man is a hero." So, why does this hero, this man of honor, cast himself in the role of the enemy?

Hummell himself gives us the answer: "The men of marine force recon are selected to carry out illegal operations throughout the world. When they don't come home, their families are told fairy tales about what happened to them... and denied compensation. Well, I have choked on these lies my entire career. Well here and now the lies stop!" In the opening scene, we not only hear men being abandoned to die alone, we see Hummell kiss his wife's grave. With her gone he is free to do what needs to do to seek justice.

Covert operations form the background to this thriller. It is true that governments, including that of the United States, engage in such activities. Though they would deny them for security reasons, with time the truth emerges. We learn of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the involvement in Nicaragua, and the military juntas of South America. Although part of history, those involved in these military actions risk life without the ability to tell their loved ones what they are doing or why. When they don't come back, their grieving relatives are told a bouquet of lies.

This may be necessary, as unpleasant as it is, but there is a certain responsibility that befalls our government to take care of the survivors of the dead. If that does not happen and their benefits are not paid, then truly a grave injustice has occurred. It is difficult to say if The Rock is plausible in this regard, but its speculation raises questions that governments need to face. If we send our boys into harm's way, even covertly, we must be willing to make reparation to their loved ones if they die. Though it might need to be done delicately, it is something the commanding officers must feel accountable for.

With such accountability ignored, Hummell takes matters into his own hands. Leading a renegade platoon of marines he breaks into a naval weapons depot and steals VX gas warheads. He then takes over Alcatraz Island, holding 81 tourists as hostages. Calling his former superiors at the Pentagon, he asks for $100M as restitution for those soldiers who died under his command during these black ops. If the government refuses to pay, he will shoot 15 missiles into San Francisco causing untold death and destruction.

The government turns to a trained SEAL team, to break into Alcatraz to disarm and defeat these traitors. However, they need someone able to handle the chemical weapons. They turn to FBI Agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage, National Treasure), a nerdy PhD agent who can handle the pressure of a biowarfare bomb but not a pregnant girlfriend or a gun.

But that is only half the team of heroes. They need to find a way into the impregnable prison. For this, they turn to British SAS Officer Jon Mason (Sean Connery). Imprisoned for 30 years by the current FBI Director, lost to the world through this time, Mason is bitter and cynical. But he is the only person who can get the team in, as he is the only person who has ever broken out of Alcatraz. With five million lives unknowingly hanging in the balance, the team enters Alcatraz only to face a desperate stand-off that leaves Mason and Goodspeed as the two misfits who must go it alone to save the city.

Connery plays Mason as a hard case, but adds that "twinkle-in-the-eye" charm that seems to characterize his roles, ever since Bond. He is a pleasure to watch. Cage is not as good, and does not reach the heights of his earlier performances, such as in Moonstruck or Leaving Las Vegas. But they have an easy banter that belies the realities of their characters.

Michael Bay directed this film after his first Bad Boys picture and before his later Armageddon and Transformers. But it is a typical Bay-film: full of quick shots, big bangs, and improbable car chases. The one chase sequence, involving a Hummer, a Ferrari and numerous police cars, is intense and thrilling and totally unbelievable. For an agent told to keep this whole incident under wraps, it seems like half the cars in SF are damaged or destroyed. Further, with a hero as a bad guy and a "bad guy" on the good team, it is predictable how the story will unfold at the end. Nevertheless, Bay does deliver some thrills, even if they are typical and by-the-book for this genre.

The real ethical question for this film relates to passive versus active disobedience. Hummell pushes beyond military discipline when he takes an active disobedience stance. Portraying himself and his men as modern-day patriots, he likens himself to George Washington. But he is not fighting a foreign government in distant lands, as Washington was. He is going against his military superiors and the Commander-in-Chief in the White House. Is this ethically appropriate? It seems we should answer no. Threatening to kill millions because hundreds were denied benefits in their deaths is to take on a role that was not his and to overly unbalance the scales of justice rather then rebalance them.

The Bible gives examples of civil disobedience. Daniel and his friends were taken captives to a foreign land (Dan. 1:6). There they were instructed to worship a false god and not their own God. Daniel disobeyed by worshiping the true God (Dan. 6:10), but he did so knowing the risk. He was willing to face death himself, but he did not threaten others. Similarly, in the New Testament after Jesus' death the Jewish leaders instructed Jesus' disciples to stop preaching the gospel of Christ (Acts 4:18). They disobeyed, citing their desire to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But they did this understanding the consequences: they would be arrested and beaten (Acts 5:40). Civil disobedience is appropriate in certain circumstances, and must be entered into recognizing the personal risk involved. Active disobedience, especially when it puts other lives at risk, is clearly another matter.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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